Teaching As A Subversive Activity

By David Hill — April 01, 2000 3 min read
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(Delacorte Press, out of print)

It’s 1969. The war in Vietnam is raging. The anti-war movement has reached a fever pitch. Militant leftists are bombing draft offices and ROTC buildings. The nation appears to be coming apart at the seams.

By Maxine GreeneBy Jonathan KozolBy John DeweyBy John HoltBy Mike RoseBy Lisa DelpitBy Theodore SizerBy Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner Against this backdrop emerges a provocative little book titled Teaching as a Subversive Activity, by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, two unknown education professors at Queens College in New York. Billed as “a no-holds- barred assault on outdated teaching methods,” the book features a clichéd red apple on the cover—except that this apple is a bomb and the stem is a lit fuse. The message is clear: Before our schools can be saved, they must first be destroyed.

“What is it that students do in the classroom?” the authors ask. “Well, mostly, they sit and listen to the teacher. Mostly, they are required to believe authorities, or at least pretend to such belief when they take tests. Mostly, they are required to remember. They are almost never required to make observations, formulate definitions, or perform any intellectual operations that go beyond repeating what someone else says is true....It is practically unheard of for students to play any role in determining what problems are worth studying or what procedures of inquiry ought to be used.”

Schools, they urge, must teach young people to think critically about society, politics, and culture. To that end, they propose doing away with grades, tests, textbooks, courses, and full-time administrators. Teachers must abandon their traditional roles as authority figures and become more like consultants or coaches. No more “content.” No more “subjects.” No more “irrelevant” classes.

Instead, learning must become a process, not a product. Teachers should teach by asking questions—not questions to which they already know the answers, but questions that will get kids to think for themselves. Postman and Weingartner offer these examples: “What bothers you most about adults? Why?” “How can ‘good’ be distinguished from ‘evil’?” “What are the dumbest and most dangerous ideas that are ‘popular’ today? Why do you think so? Where did these ideas come from?” And so on.

The purpose of this “new kind of education,” they write, is to create “a new kind of person,” one who is “an actively inquiring, flexible, creative, innovative, tolerant, liberal personality who can face uncertainty and ambiguity without disorientation, who can formulate viable new meanings to meet changes in the environment which threaten individual and mutual survival.”

Postman and Weingartner weren’t the only educators advocating such radical notions. A short list of like-minded reformers of the day includes John Holt, Ivan Illich, and Herbert Kohl. Their ideas were put into practice at so-called “open schools,” which did away with many traditional components of schooling. But in the late 1970s, open education fell under fire, and a back-to-basics backlash swept the country.

Even Postman’s views on education changed. In his 1979 book, Teaching as a Conserving Activity, he wrote, “Frankly, I don’t know if I have turned or everything else has. But many of the arguments which then seemed merely opposite, now seem acutely apposite, and this book is the result of a change in perspective.” Postman didn’t make a complete 180-degree shift—he distanced himself from the back-to-basics crowd—but his calls for school dress codes and firm discipline were surprising, to say the least. In recent years, Postman, now chairman of the department of culture and communication at New York University, has written several books lamenting the corrupting influence of technology on civilization.

Read today, Teaching as a Subversive Activity is by turns dated, silly, and profound. Faddish words and phrases like “entropy,” “future shock,” “credibility gap,” and “cybernetics” place the book firmly in its 1960s context. And some of the authors’ proposals sound either half-baked or merely antagonistic, like the recommendation that all teachers undergo some form of psychotherapy as part of their inservice training.

Still, Postman and Weingartner’s central argument—that the purpose of school is to teach students how to learn and think—is as valid today as it was 30 years ago. In one chapter, they advise teachers to “try to avoid telling your students any answers, if only for a few lessons or days. Do not prepare a lesson plan. Instead, confront your students with some sort of problem which might interest them. Then, allow them to work the problem through without your advice or counsel.” Now there’s a subversive idea.


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